Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Valentine's Day!

I subjected my poor dog to another photo shoot. She was well compensated.

Poor dear deer.

My Valentine's decorations have been up for a month. I'll probably leave them up for another month, because they look good.

And...The Kid helped me make Valentine's cookies. 

Guess which one is his.

I subjected the cookies to a photo shoot, too.

This is the valentine we gave to our friends at the front desk.

We outdid ourselves.

Happy Valentine's Day! We (probably) love you!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Collaborative King Cake Recipe

It has been a long time since we've baked together. I've missed the opportunity to brag about my prowess in the kitchen. Being that today is Fat Tuesday, I thought I'd share a king cake recipe whose delicious surplus sugar content will rot your teeth straight out of your head. But first, words.

I've been wanting to celebrate Mardi Gras with a king cake for at least eight years. The day always creeps up on me, and gets lost in the other, tamer February holidays. Presidents' Day, am I right? I've held this Mardi Gras king cake goal for years, despite the fact that I'd never actually eaten king cake before, and had no idea what was inside. 

Mardi Gras Bella

It turns out that there are an assortment of things that could be inside a king cake. King cakes vary in content; and in size, shape, and appearance. They're eaten at different times of year, depending on where you live. Some cakes are cakier, and others are breadier. I'm guessing, without knowing for sure, that king cakes outside the U.S. are probably more like a sweetened pastry, and less like a Cinnabon. I wanted the Cinnabon. 

I consulted with Google, and sketched out my own recipe based on the three most appealing recipes I found. Or possibly they were the first three search results. I don't know, I just wanted cake. Here's the end result. 

Collaborative King Cake

½ c. milk
2 TB butter
2 ¼ teas. active dry yeast
⅓ c. warm water (less than 110°F)
¼ c. sugar
1 egg
¾ teas. salt
¼ teas. ground nutmeg
1 teas. ground cinnamon
½ teas. lemon zest
3 c. flour (approximate, because it's so humid in Bangkok)

½ c. brown sugar
½ TB ground cinnamon
⅓ c. chopped pecan nuts
¼ c. flour
½ package cream cheese (or more, if you want to take a bit of the edge off the sweetness)

2 c. powdered sugar
1 teas. lemon juice
3 TB butter*
3 TB milk*
½ teas. vanilla extract
½ teas. almond extract
*Next time, I might substitute the butter and milk with cream cheese.

Green, purple, and gold sprinkles.
I made my own sprinkles by mixing chunky sugar with a drop of food coloring. I didn't have any red food coloring to make the purple sprinkles, so I threw two blueberries into one bowl of sugar, and swirled them around until the sugar turned purple. I then ate the blueberries, and no one was any the wiser.

Scald milk on the stove over medium heat. Remove it from heat, and stir in butter. Set the pan aside to cool. In a big bowl, add the water, yeast, and 1TB of the sugar. Let it stand for 10 minutes. Add the cooled milk mixture to the bowl. Whisk in the egg, then the remaining sugar, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, and lemon zest. Add the flour one cup at a time. Knead the dough for 8 minutes. Grease the bowl, throw in the kneaded dough, cover, and let it rise until doubled.

While the dough is rising, mix the dry filling ingredients together with a fork, then mash in the cream cheese. Cover, and set it aside. 

When the dough has doubled in size, punch it down and roll it out into a rectangle on a floured surface. I'm terrible at rolling things out, so I can't give you exact dimensions, or tell you how thick it should be. Listen to your heart, or whatever, and aim, at the very least, for a 9x13'' rectangle. Spread the filling evenly across the top, then roll the dough up like a jelly roll, starting from the long side of the rectangle. Wrap the roll inside a well-greased bundt pan, and gracefully mash the two ends together to make a complete ring. Make diagonal slashes at 1½'' intervals across the top of the ring, not cutting more than ⅓ deep into the dough. Cover, and let rise until doubled.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare the frosting by mixing all of the frosting ingredients together, and tweaking the consistency with milk (or cream cheese) and powdered sugar, as necessary. You'll add the frosting while the cake is still warm, so it doesn't need to be too runny, but it should slide off your mixing implement fairly easily. 

When the dough has risen, stick it in the oven, and bake for approximately 25-30 minutes. My oven here is impossible to predict. I had to cover my cake with foil halfway through to prevent it from scorching on top. Keep a close eye, and adjust the baking time as necessary to pacify your own oven.

When golden brown, pull the cake from the oven, and let it sit in the pan on a cooling rack for a minute or two. While the cake is still hot, knock it out of the pan, and onto a serving plate. Artistically dump the frosting over the top of it, and creatively shower it with sprinkles. Find some old beaded necklaces, pretend they're clean, and drape them gaudily around your cake. Before serving, take photos for your blog. Serve, and enjoy.

A note about babies:
Southern U.S. king cakes traditionally call for the addition of a small, plastic baby, which is a nod to baby Jesus, and the origins of Mardi Gras. You're supposed to shove the baby inside the cake before you serve it. Whoever finds the baby gets a prize, or is saddled with the responsibility of hosting the next Mardi Gras. I don't have a small, plastic baby, and since I'm the only member of the household with an interest in Mardi Gras, I'm already burdened with next year's production. Bottom line, I omitted the baby from my recipe, but not before trying to make it work.

This is the smallest plastic baby in our house. Obviously, it wasn't going to work for us.

I really liked the end result, but it is so, so sweet. Maybe I'll retool it next year. If you're curious to see the original recipes I used to make this one, you can find them HERE, HERE, and HERE. You can see that I leaned most heavily on the one from allrecipes. 

Let us eat, and drink, for tomorrow we Lent. - The Bible (sort of)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Gardening, Resilience, and Pep Talks

I stepped outside this morning, and saw a single, yellow bloom on one of my balcony plants:

This bloom is significant. Three weeks ago, I was sure this plant was going to die. The soil was completely infested with mealybugs. They'd chewed through the roots, and decimated the stalks. I made a snap decision to uproot the whole plant, and replace the soil. I didn't want to wait another day, and had to store the plant overnight in a bag of water. 

My tentative, uninformed foray into balcony gardening is teaching me about the resilience of plants. I was sure this plant was dead, yet here it is, blooming. 

Four years ago today, my cousin died by suicide. I try to write about it every year, in the hope that I will never take a phone call like that again. This year, I want to do something different. 

Last month, my Californian relatives sent us a nice package of goodies. Among the gifts was a box of greeting cards designed by Susan O'Malley. O'Malley was a Bay Area artist, whose work focused on engaging her community, and encouraging people to reach out to others. For one of her projects, she stood on a street and asked people what advice their 80-year-old selves would give them. These greeting cards are their responses. 

I'm an inexperienced gardener, but I'm a talented people watcher. I've watched people adapt to unbelievable circumstances. We all have a large capacity for resilience, but sometimes we need a little extra care to exercise it. In light of that, I'd love to share these Susan O' Malley pep talks. Why don't you pick a card, and I'll send it to you, with a short personal note, telling you why I like you. 

I'm generally realistic about the reach of these posts. In the off-chance that two people ask for the same card, send me a list of the top three cards you'd want to receive, and I'll make an executive decision as to who gets what.

Take care of yourself. And if you're in crisis, please find help. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Banana Bella Shutdown Contest: The Winner

Before I announce the winner of the Banana Bella contest, I'd like to thank all of the participants who played, and proved it. It's a lot of fun for me to see who does these things. I love hearing from you.

A few of you told me you'd completed the search, but didn't send me proof of your success. For you, I'm going to fall back on an ancient adage: pics, or it didn't happen.

The Kid picked this round's Banana Bella winner at approximately 6:26pm(UTC+07:00). All entrants' names were written on an equally sized slip of post-it note, which was then folded to prevent cheating. The papers were shaken by hand, and shoved into the back of a toy truck. The Kid chose the winning slip from the back without prompting, and handed it to me for the big announcement.

And the winner is...

Truly, Terry wins it again. This guy wins just about every contest he enters. He wins so many contests, that a total win count is included on his annual family Christmas card. 2017's count, according to the card, was 45 contest wins. 45!

We're very happy for you, Terry, and we're probably going to forget to tell you about the next Banana Bella. Give people a chance, man.

Until next time (except for you, Terry)!

Monday, January 22, 2018

Banana Bella Shutdown Contest

Phil is an essential government employee. That's not just the biased opinion of a wife. When he reported to work this morning, he was informed that his work is essential because he helps protect life and property. Phil is required to work through the shutdown, though he is not currently being paid.

The general expectation is that federal employees impacted by the shutdown will be given back pay, but there is no guarantee. As a casual observer with a touch of legal education, I've been lightly researching what sort of issues could arise if the feds don't provide back pay to an essential employee.

The bottom line is, I'm mad. I'm mad about the shut down, and I'm mad about the comments on Delta's new animal policy. I'm mad about air pollution in Bangkok, and I'm mad about a few others things that I can't remember right at this second. I've reached a mad breaking point, and have decided to channel all of this anger into a BANANA BELLA SHUTDOWN CONTEST!!!!!

You may remember last year's challenge. You were asked to comb through this blog to find six hidden photos of Banana Bella. This year's contest is more contained. Finish the word search below, send us photographic proof of your triumph (text, email, FB, Instagram, USPS, FedEx, whatever), and you'll gain an entry into our Banana Bella drawing. The winner will receive a fabulous prize, courtesy of Banana Bella herself. 

All proof must be received by the end of the normal, functioning, workweek: Friday (1/26) at 5:00pm PST. Start searching.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Christmas Card Challenge 2017: The Double Duel Has Begun

It is January 19th, and I don't think we'll be receiving any more holiday cards. I've cut the ceremonial tape, placed the cards on the wall, and officiated a very brief commemoration, attended only by Bella and myself, in which I gave a short speech in my head about how meaningful it is to hear from friends every year. It was very moving.

And, so, The Year of the Double Duel has begun.

May your tape be adhesive, your card be sticky, and your year be blessed with the glory of a champion.

I realize that "double duel" probably isn't the correct way of phrasing what we're doing here, but it sounds good, so it stands.
Challenge 2017 is on top, Challenge 2016 (still uncooperative) is on bottom.
For more information about this year's challenge, or for general background on what the **** this thing is, see: HERE.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


Ten thousand years ago, we took a day trip to Ayutthaya. I snapped a bunch of photos for you, then left them on my phone until it was factory reset after a poorly designed update. Fortunately for all of us, the photos were automatically uploaded to my Google account. Thus, behold:

Ayutthaya is another old city. Unlike the previous old cities we've visited, this one is in Asia. It was a pretty important city in Asia, as the second capital city of Siam, and was a major international trading hub. Ayutthaya hit its peak around 1300-1700 AD, before it was sacked by the Burmese. The majority of the city was destroyed, but the ruins are impressive.

Ayutthaya was constructed along a grid pattern. Streets and canals were carefully planned to take advantage of the naturally occurring water resources. The city sits at the crossroads of three big rivers, and had an advanced irrigation system. Ayutthaya had extensive international ties, and a blended international and local population. It's similar to Bangkok, which became the capital after Ayutthaya fell. It was in a strategic location, with a solid economy, and knew how to cater to expats. One dissimilarity is that Bangkok is super sprawly.

Most of the visible ruins in Ayutthaya were parts of monasteries. Not a lot of other structures survived. The ruins are spread over a wide territory, and we've heard that it's best to see them from a bicycle. We drove, and walked. We did not see everything. They do offer elephant rides around some of the ruins, but we were able to resist that urge. There's broad consensus that those touristy Thailand elephant rides are not good for the elephants. Google it.

Normally, the very thorough historian in me likes to caption every photo, but I cannot remember what it all is. This was October. It might as well have been fifteen years ago. I remember going into one structure (the fourth photo above the top of this paragraph) that had a very narrow stairway leading down into the rock. At the base of the staircase, you could duck under an overhang and look up at several really rad, old murals. Phil said it felt like Indiana Jones. I said it felt like claustrophobia. 

One other thing I can remember is that a lot of the Buddha figures were missing their heads. This isn't some sort of weird natural phenomenon, they were systematically looted. There are a few that are still fully intact. I did a little bit of Googreasearch to determine whether it's disrespectful to photograph depictions of Buddha. Most sources say it's okay, provided you're not doing something else that's disrespectful, e.g. standing on Buddha, mocking Buddha, pulling down your pants and taking a photo of your naked butt for your Instagram (this honest-to-goodness just happened at Wat Arun in Bangkok). Depictions of Buddha are not worshipped as idols, but Buddhists will often show religious devotion in front of a depiction to show reverence for Buddha's teachings. 

This is one of the most photographed places in Thailand. There used to be a large statue of Buddha at this site, but it crumbled. The tree grew up around the head of the Buddha. 

Ayutthaya is not too far from Bangkok. We went with Phil's family. We couldn't all fit in our car, so we rented a sixteen passenger van. There were only six of us, so that left ten seats of open space. It was awesome. I want to road trip like that from now on. Visiting Ayutthaya was the first time we got out of Bangkok since we arrived. Living in Bangkok is like living in a convenient, multicultural island, and I am starting to get some serious island fever, man. I cannot wait to see more of this country.